book reviews

Once an elite gymnast, prisoner, and porn star, now she’s Simply Verona…

I don’t remember how I first heard about former Dutch elite gymnast Verona van de Leur. I like watching women’s gymnastics, but I quit being a regular viewer a long time ago. I certainly never followed Dutch gymnasts. I don’t think they were regularly featured in the United States, anyway. But somehow, I was clued in to Verona van de Leur’s rather sordid story of leaving gymnastics only to wind up living in her car for two years, doing a stint in a Dutch prison, and becoming porn purveyor, and I decided that I needed to read her book, Simply Verona: Breaking All the Rules. This book was published in March of this year. I found it a fascinating, but very long and involved read.

In 2002, Verona van de Leur was at the top of the Dutch gymnastics scene. She was named Dutch sportswoman of the year in 2003.

Verona van de Leur, born in Gouda, South Holland, and named after the Italian city, was a gymnastics natural. She and her younger sister, Denise, both studied the discipline, but it was very obvious that Verona was born to tumble. According to her book, Verona van de Leur’s parents were very much invested in her career, and they shamed her whenever she didn’t win medals. As Verona got better and better at the sport, they and her original coach, Frank Luther, demanded more of her. One would think that a woman so gifted at a sport would want to do it, but Verona got to the point at which she hated gymnastics, despite her talent. She was forced to work out constantly, deny herself food that she loved, and submit to abuse from her parents and coaches.

Verona on the balance beam…

Naturally, the goal was for Verona to reach the Olympic Games. She met many wonderful gymnasts on the way up, including the great Romanian gymnast, Andreea Raducan, whose book I reviewed. Unfortunately, she suffered a very serious injury in Greece when a vault went horribly wrong. That vault was the beginning of her downward spiral. She very badly injured her foot and it was not properly cared for at the time. She continued to train even when she was seriously hurt because her parents and her coach wanted her to compete in the 2004 Olympics. Sadly, she missed those Games due to the injury not being properly tended to when it first happened. Verona changed coaches, exchanging The Netherlands’ top coach, Frank Luther, for a Russian coach named Boris Orlov. Boris was a better coach for her, but Verona still never made it to the Olympics.

Verona helps put the Dutch team on the map, although this particular routine had an unfortunate break.

As she struggled to recover from the serious injury, she grew to like gymnastics less and less. She was also getting older and more interested in life outside of the gym. She wanted to date. Her parents weren’t on board with letting her have that freedom, even as she became an adult. When she made noises about wanting to quit gymnastics, her parents would react with rage. Verona had a sponsor who paid her, and her parents were handling –or should I say mishandling— her money. In 2008, she finally did walk away from gymnastics. Her parents reacted by throwing her out of the house and disowning her.

A beautifully done vault.

Verona met a guy named Robbie on the Internet. He had a criminal past. Verona’s parents disapproved of him, which helped them decide to toss away their daughter. They were very resolute about their decision to throw her away, to the point of not even letting her see her grandmother or giving her a winter coat. Verona had to sneak around to see her grandma, who would sometimes slip her some money. Verona and Robbie were forced to live in a car for two years. They had to scrounge for every euro cent, and there were times when they didn’t even have enough to pay for a piss at the train station.

Verona ended up having to sue her parents because they had illegally taken her money and squandered it. Originally, she was awarded 1300 euros and the right to take her personal belongings, to include a laptop computer, which her father scrubbed clean before it was given to her. Verona bought a camera and one day, desperate from her situation, she caught a woman cheating on her husband. In a moment of impetuousness, Verona tried to blackmail the woman for 1,000 euros.

Meanwhile, Robbie, who is half Indonesian, was racially profiled while they were playing softball at a park. He had a criminal record and was carrying a bat, so someone at the park called the police, who arrested the couple. Verona was so flexible that she was able to get out of the police car while handcuffed. Not long after that arrest, the two were arrested again for Verona’s unsuccessful attempt to blackmail the adulterous couple she happened to catch on film. She spent 72 days in prison, as officials tried to also prosecute her for child porn, which was never actually found on her computer. It was scrubbed clean of data by her father, who had it in his possession when the porn was supposedly put there. Her description of the Dutch judicial system was very intriguing to me. I felt sad for her having gotten into this predicament, especially after she was used by her family. Verona eventually got a 90,000 euro settlement from her parents, which was paid in monthly installments. It wasn’t enough to live on, but it did help her move out of the car.

Verona tried to turn her life around by teaching gymnastics clinics and working with children. But when the news came out about her legal problems, none of the gyms wanted to work with her. She couldn’t find work, and therefore couldn’t get back to a life of “respectability”. So then she turned to the adult Web site industry, which turned out to be her permanent ticket out of poverty.

Verona van de Leur’s story is amazing, although it took me a long time to get through her book. It’s basically well written, though there are times when I can tell that English isn’t her native language. I also noticed that she has a tendency to use Internetisms like “LOL”. A good editor would have counseled her against that, although maybe it makes her more relatable to younger people.

I was actually kind of moved by her words about the people she met while working in porn. I have some experience with that world myself. Years ago, I used to be in an online community for people who enjoyed BDSM. It was not something I experimented with a lot, but I did get to know people who were into it. Most of them were perfectly normal people who were just a bit kinky. Some were very good people, with good hearts. I had some fantastic conversations with a lot of them and entertained some of them by writing erotica. In any case, Verona ended up making friends with people who were enchanted by her pay Web site. One user was a guy who had a rare disease that had killed his mother. Because of his illness, he’d never had much of a sex life, but he was a very kind person. Verona got to know him because he was a regular on her site. Sadly, he did pass away, and she was very much affected by it, even though he’d been a “customer”.

Dutch pop inspired by Verona van de Leur… wonder what Verona’s parents think now. She is still estranged from them over ten years later.

The porn industry helped Verona earn enough money to get out of the dire financial situation she was in. She is now on her feet, having spent a year and a half writing Simply Verona. She has learned from others in the adult sex industry, but she’s also gotten to know musicians and artists, having inspired Ellen ten Damme to write a song about her. She quit the adult film industry in November 2019. However, she still uses her pole dancing skills, as you can see in the above video.

I enjoyed reading Verona van de Leur’s story. She has really led a fascinating life with many twists and turns. If I weren’t in Germany, I’m not sure I would have heard of her… but I will definitely recommend her book. It’s very much an eye opener, that proves that gymnastics is a pretty tough sport wherever you are.

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book reviews

Repost: A review of Andreea Raducan’s The Other Side of the Medal

I am in the middle of another book about gymnastics and former Romanian gymnast Andreea Raducan is mentioned in the book I’m reading now. I am reposting this book review that was posted on my original blog on November 28, 2016. This review appears as is.

At the 2000 Summer Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia, Andreea Raducan put in a brilliant performance in gymnastics and won the all around gold medal.  She also won a silver medal on the vault and a team gold medal.  Unfortunately, Raducan was eventually disqualified and stripped of her gold all around medal because she tested positive for a banned substance.  Before the competition, Raducan had complained of a headache.  A team doctor gave her a cold pill which had pseudoephedrine, a banned substance, in it.  Before she knew it, Andreea Raducan was famous for more than just her gold winning performance in the gym.

I always enjoy a good life story.  Although I have never so much as successfully turned a cartwheel, I find women’s gymnastics fascinating.  I probably downloaded Andreea Raducan’s 2013 book, The Other Side of the Medal on a drunken buying spree.  I just finished reading Raducan’s book this morning and mostly enjoyed it.  Since her turn at the Olympics, Andreea Raducan has become a journalist, television host, and sports announcer.  She also does some modeling and promotional work.  In short, she’s moved beyond life as a gymnast and become successful, despite losing her gold medal.  She went on to win five more World Championships medals and retired from the sport in 2002. 

The Other Side of the Medal is the story of how Raducan became a gymnast in a country that was once a veritable gymnast factory.  Raducan notes that since Romania’s society changed after the fall of communism, children don’t get involved in sports the way they used to.  She writes that parents are now too busy to support their athletic kids and they are less willing to send them away to be trained.  I’m not sure what went on at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, but the Romanian women gymnasts were not contenders there.  Raducan writes that a lot of the former great Romanian gymnasts have left Romania and are now working in other countries.  

Andreea Raducan came of age at a time when Romania boasted many wonderful female gymnasts.  She writes about the grueling training it took for her to reach the pinnacle of success and how crushing it was when she tested positive for “doping”.  I couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for Raducan, who had simply taken a pill that so many people take when they’re feeling sick.  Many people were supportive of her after the controversy, including Nadia Comaneci.  In Romania, she is seen as a sympathetic figure.

For the most part, I think Raducan’s book is a good read.  I did notice some editing glitches, most of which appeared to be slight errors in proofreading.  For instance, I noticed a couple of sentences where she clearly started to write something and changed her mind about how she wanted to express herself.  She obviously went back to rearrange the sentence, but didn’t do a complete job of it.  There were a couple of other times when it seemed like maybe there was a language glitch.  Overall, though, I was impressed by Ms. Raducan’s ability to express herself.  She includes some color photos as well.

I think The Other Side of the Medal is a good read for people who like true stories, enjoy women’s gymnastics, and are interested in Romania.  I think I’d give this book a solid four stars out of five.

A video of Raducan performing at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

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book reviews

A review of Start by Believing: Larry Nassar’s Crimes, the Institutions that Enabled Him, and the Brave Women Who Stopped a Monster, by John Barr and Dan Murphy

I just finished my fourth book about former doctor turned sex pest, Larry Nassar. This one, entitled Start by Believing: Larry Nassar’s Crimes, the Institutions that Enabled Him, and the Brave Women Who Stopped a Monster, was written by John Barr and Dan Murphy, two very experienced reporters who have both worked for ESPN. ESPN, for my non-American readers, is a very well respected and long established all sports cable television channel. Not surprisingly, this book about Larry Nassar’s crimes is the best researched of the four I’ve written so far. It’s also extremely well-written.

Since this is my fourth review about this topic, I’m not going to go too much into detail what Larry Nassar did. By now, we all know that he sexually molested hundreds of women under the guise of providing them “medical treatment”. He was labeled a genius– doctor to gymnastic stars– and his office was littered with photos and autographs of famous young women athletes he’d “helped” with his controversial pelvic floor treatments. His victims included people such as Simone Biles, and every single one of the “Fierce Five” gymnastics team that competed at the London Summer Olympic Games in 2012. But they also included people were comparative “nobodies”, like Rachael Denhollander, who was interviewed extensively for this book, as well as past stars like Tasha Schwikert and Jamie Dantzscher, and even a very young friend of Nassar’s family, Kyle Stephens, who was not an athlete.

Barr and Murphy conducted many interviews to gather material for this book, but they really concentrated on Rachael Denhollander’s and Jamie Dantzscher’s stories. I have already read and reviewed Denhollander’s own book, What is A Girl Worth?, also an excellent read. But what made Start by Believing even better than Denhollander’s book was that the journalists also shared Jamie Dantzscher’s story. I remembered watching Dantzscher, strangely enough, when she was on an ESPN gymnastics special back in 1997. I remember I was fresh from Armenia, staying at my eldest sister’s house in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and I turned on the TV to see the most famous gymnasts of the day flipping and tumbling to rock music.

The first time I remember ever seeing 2000 Olympian, Jamie Dantzscher…

I was too busy with graduate school during the 2000 Sydney Olympics to watch Dantzscher go for the gold. I later read that the women’s gymnastics team had a rather poor showing there. China was awarded the bronze medal ahead of them, but it later came out that the Chinese team had broken some rules which stripped them of their team medal for women’s gymnastics. The U.S. team was later awarded the bronze medal ten years after the fact. I also didn’t know that Jamie Dantzscher had been forced out of the competition. Her very large family had scrimped and saved to come to Australia to see her perform, all for naught. As they were enjoying their time Down Under, Jamie’s father, John, and sister, Jennifer, were broadsided by a bus while running an errand. Jennifer suffered cuts and bruises, but John Dantzscher was badly hurt to the point at which it was feared he would die. He spent weeks in a Sydney hospital before he could go back to California to relearn everything that made him independent. Years later, Jamie’s sister, Jennifer, died from asthma related causes.

It turns out Jamie Dantzscher is a Latter-day Saint. However, she apparently uses a lot of foul language and is unusually outspoken. During the 2000 Olympics, she came under fire for criticizing famed women’s gymnastics coach, Bela Karolyi, calling him a “puppeteer”. She was also one of the very first women to take legal action against Larry Nassar, although she did so anonymously at first. Barr and Murphy did a great job of sharing Jamie Dantzscher’s brave story. I came away from their book with more respect and admiration for Jamie than I previously had.

The authors also share Rachael Denhollander’s story, which, because I had already read her book, felt a little like a rerun. However, had I not read What is a Girl Worth?, I think I would have really appreciated how Barr and Murphy explained her situation. To a lesser extent, the authors share the stories of a wide array of gymnasts who were victimized by Larry Nassar, and they explain how Nassar was able to get away with his crimes for as long as he had. Larry Nassar is a world class manipulator who used every trick in the book to get people to trust him and believe in what he was doing, even when the abuse was obvious and had been reported for years before his career fell into a shambles and he lost the right to freedom.

Maybe I should be angry and horrified reading books about Larry Nassar’s sex crimes, but when I read Start By Believing, I felt an odd sense of power and pride for the victims who became victors. This book is about brave women who came forward to bring a monster to justice, many of whom eventually became friends in the process. I often like to say that something good comes out of almost every situation. Despite Larry Nassar’s despicable acts of abuse against women, many of the women involved in this case have formed a kind of sisterhood. And they all got to watch their abuser FINALLY meet justice. Frankly, as someone who has also been repeatedly screwed over and abused by other people, I found it an unusually empowering and inspiring read.

I also liked the fact that Barr and Murphy had clearly read a lot of other, earlier books about the abuses suffered in gymnastics. They specifically mention Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, by Joan Ryan, Chalked Up, by Jennifer Sey, and Off Balance, by Dominique Moceanu. I have read all three of these books, and though Sey and Moceanu were not victimized by Larry Nassar, they were both elite gymnasts who suffered abuse from their coaches. Joan Ryan was a sports reporter in San Francisco before her book about the celebrated abuses in women’s gymnastics and figure skating exploded in 1995. All three books are outstanding, and well worth reading. I especially enjoyed the life stories, because even when they are about a common topic, like abuse in gymnastics, there are interesting side stories. Dominique Moceanu, for instance, is the daughter of Romanian immigrants who had escaped Nicholai Ceausescu’s horrifying regime. Jennifer Sey is about my age, and I can relate to what it was like for her to grow up in the 70s and 80s, when parents were a hell of a lot less hands on and obsessed with safety as they are now.

And finally, Barr and Murphy include several interesting color photos. The one that made me stop and pause the longest was the picture of several tiny gymnasts pushing former coach, John Geddert, in his blue Corvette as part of their athletic training. Geddert was well known for his aggressive, abusive tactics to get his women to win, but I had no idea that he’d employed making them push him in his very expensive sports car. Talk about an asshole!

Anyway, if you’re interested in reading about Larry Nassar’s crimes, I think I would put Start By Believing at the top of the required reading list. In fact, I think it’s my favorite of the four books I’ve read so far, followed closely by Rachael Denhollander’s book, because Start By Believing is so comprehensive, extremely professionally written, yet very engaging, and it’s so well-researched. Highly recommended with five stars!

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